by Jessica Topper
She keeps a lock of hair in her pocket
She wears a cross around her neck
Yes, the hair is from a little boy
And the cross is someone she has not met
This verse from The Black Crowes’ “She Talks To Angels” always stops me in my tracks. Even though it’s a song, I think it would make a great creative writing prompt for fiction. It begs the questions Who is she? Does she know this little boy? What happened to him? Who gave her the cross? as well as the larger questions like Where is she going? and Where has she been? And come to think of it, why does she insist on carrying these items on her person, as opposed to stashing them in a drawer? What does she believe in?
Every day, we lug stuff around with us. In our purses, in our cars. Every house probably has a “junk drawer” where “stuff” goes. Does each little piece of miscellany have meaning? Probably not. But life is hectic and it’s hard to find the time and energy to tackle those items and keep them at bay.
As writers, we are constantly tossing things in and out of the junk drawer. A cool thought to save for later, a perfect emotion or detail to pull out when the time is right. We pepper our prose with the meaningful and the mundane all in the name of creating realistic, memorable stories. It’s our duty as word-weavers to give our characters “things” to help define them. Sometimes it’s as simple (and as essential) as a name, a profession or a pet. We stick them in houses by the beach, in penthouses near the sky. We give them friendships, relationships, enemies.
But a novel – like a song – has a set number of words, it is self-contained. Because word count is at a precious premium, we have to make those things mean something – to our characters, and hopefully to our readers.
In my first novel, Louder Than Love, I used place as a grounding force for my characters, creating a sanctuary from words and memory. It was easy – I had a widow who couldn’t face staying in Manhattan, where her husband had existed one day and not the next. So I made her flee with her young daughter to the place where she existed before she knew him: her hometown. I created a fictional sleepy suburb of New York City and gave my characters a nearby lake to visit when they were in need of solace or inspiration. This place set the tone and in a way, defined my two main characters, Kat and Adrian. The gentle, constant push-pull of the waves mirrored these two new lovers, as their relationship grew like a ripple in the water.
But my next novel posed an interesting challenge. Dictatorship of the Dress (Berkley, coming 2015) takes place in a span of five days and entirely in transit. The story follows two strangers, thrown together on the road: primarily in airports, planes, cabs and hotels. They’re stripped of most of their creature comforts: no home to cozy up in, no job with a desk to hide behind. How can you take characters out of their elements and still convey who they are and why they are the way they are? Their dialogue, their goals and their motivations move the plot and give us a glimpse. But how can we punch it up and create memorable characters without their usual surroundings?
With things. With stuff.
My heroine is a quirky comic book artist. Obviously she’s carrying her ever-present sketchpad with her. But I needed to give her other “things” to help define her, comfort her, and make her feel at home while she was in flux. I began to cull a motley assortment of items she just happens to have on hand in her carry-on and pulls out with uncanny and comedic timing. (Think Hermoine Granger’s handbag with the Undetectable Extension Charm in Harry Potter, just without the practical magic.)
It started with a Magic Eight Ball. Then a Batman alarm clock. And suddenly, out rolled fuchsia, zebra print Duck Tape. It all seemed random at first. But like rummaging through and inventorying the junk drawer, my writer’s brain began to assign meaning, importance and history to each item. Weaving her acquisition of them into her backstory. And slowly answering the questions Who gave them to her? What do these items mean to her? What has she gone through? Why did she bring them on her trip?
And perhaps a larger question: Can she let go of any of them?
Last month, Sharla Rae did an excellent post here on Tips for Writing Children, which got me thinking. Children and “stuff” naturally go hand in hand – we’ve all seen the magic of what a kid can do with a refrigerator box, right? What looks like fodder for our recycling bin becomes a time machine/beauty salon/race car/you get the picture.
Kids covet different things than adults do, and they covet differently. They can assign meaning to an item well beyond the scope of their current age and maturity level. Or maybe there’s no reasoning behind the item at all except the knee-jerk reaction of IT’S MINE. Like the iconic image of Linus with his blanket, what kids carry can be powerful, unquestionable and utterly necessary on their journey.
While writing a scene in Louder Than Love that involved five-year old Abbey bringing up the difficult subject of her deceased father to her mother Kat, I gave her items to help her and define her.
Abbey began pulling items out of her purse and placing them neatly across her lap. I glanced in the rearview mirror as she brought out a Pez dispenser of a kitty cat and a sparkly green guitar pick Adrian had given her. Next came a pair of glow-in-the-dark vampire fangs waiting for her mouth to grow into. She carefully stuffed them between her lips and did a chomp-test; no, still too big. She placed them on her lap as well.
“Then Jake said, ‘My dad says your dad is six feet under.’”
I jerked my head up in the mirror, but she wasn’t watching me. She had pulled a photograph of Pete out of her bag. It had wrinkles from over-handling but was still a great shot of him. We had gone to a Marathon Party at a friend’s apartment that overlooked First Avenue. Pete was in need of a haircut and shave, but looked positively radiant in the picture, wolfy teeth and all.
“And what did you tell him?”
“I told him my dad is in the stars and had two feet, not six! Then I said, ‘your dad must be crazy.’” The way she drawled out her last word made me long to leap over the seat and hug her.
“Good answer, Abb. You know . . . Dad was smiling right at you in that picture.”
She was holding the photo with both hands, quite close to her face. I leaned my chest on the steering wheel as we coasted down our street, trying to hold my heart together in one piece. “Yep,” I managed. “Everyone at the party was looking out the window watching the marathon runners race up the street, but you began cooing . . . you weren’t even two months old, riding in the pouch carrier on my chest. And he turned and smiled at you and I snapped the picture.”
“Hi,” Abbey said, as if she was cooing at a baby herself. “Hi Dad.” She neatly tucked the photo into her pocketbook, replaced her other treasures, and smiled.
Abbey and Kat could have had their discussion in the rearview mirror about the schoolyard bully without the aid of props, but I don’t think it would have been as memorable, or as meaningful. The kitty cat Pez dispenser and sparkly guitar pick reinforce the special bond Abbey has with her mother’s new suitor, Adrian. Because she was just a baby when her father died, Abbey needs that photo of Pete for her world to make sense. She’s had to deal with so much at such a young age, yet it’s important to remember she’s still a child. She’s been waiting to grow into those plastic vampire teeth, and she’ll still have to wait a little more.
These are her treasurers, for the moment.
So what is the state of your junk drawer? As a writer, you are the custodian of your characters’ items, the “stuff” their dreams – and your fiction – are made of. Choose wisely, choose with abandon, choose often. Make the things they carry count.
Comment below for a chance to win an e-book of Louder Than Love. Winner will be chosen and announced on Monday!
Jessica Topper is an ex-librarian turned rock n roll number cruncher. By day, she does bookkeeping for touring rock bands. By night, she creates books of her own.
She is the author of two novels from Berkley: Louder Than Love, and the forthcoming Dictatorship of the Dress (January 2015).
Find her online at http://www.jesstopper.com and https://twitter.com/jesstopper
You are encouraging the reader to think of talismans.
There is also such a thing as a McGuffin.
When does one become the other?
Good question, Joe! Thanks for bringing up such a cool plot device – I can practically hear Hitchock uttering the word now: “McGuffin.”
I think it depends on the writer, the reader and the item itself!
Ah, Jessica, no fair making me cry at 6 am!
People, if you haven’t read Jessica’s book, you need to open an Amazon browser. RIGHT NOW! Seriously, her book was one of the top 3 I read last year. Well, I don’t need to tell you, you can see from her writing above.
Brilliant post, Jessica. You’re right – character’s ‘things’ are like similes – a way to show tons about a character in a short space. An emotional space. Thank you for the inspiration this morning.
All’s fair, Laura – my tears have been shed over the pages of your novels as well! I love the concept of “an emotional space” – never underestimate the power of the THING!
I love thematic elements like this, as Laura can tell you. The button, the necklace, the old watch. Whatever they are, they get me every time.
wow, what great advice! Exactly what I needed in this stage of my re-write. Very helpful and inspiring and your writing is wonderful. Will do to your site to learn more. THANK YOU>
Thanks for stopping my Marcianne, and best of luck with your re-write! Sometimes those items are just there and waiting for you to add them as a finishing touch, locking parts of your story together like perfect puzzle pieces!
What a phenomenal article, and for me, so timely. It got me thinking about my own WIP. It’s the little nuances of being able to point out what someone carries in their pocket that they hold dear or their favorite keepsake that turns good writing into great writing. It’s all in the details.
Thanks, Kelly – glad it was timely for you and your WIP! You’re right, the details can really make things memorable. Think “Citizen Kane” and “Rosebud.” Powerful!
I love this, Jessica! “Things” are so important to us as individuals and they should be to our characters as well. You can reveal so much about your character through the things they keep close. Brilliant post!
Thanks, Orly! I probably could have written on this subject all day – just another way to procrastinate from cleaning out the REAL junk drawer that lurks behind me in my kitchen as I type this…
If I don’t win Louder Than Love, I now know from that passage that I’ll still just have to get it on my own. Such a lovely example.
I really like this post, too – there is so much to be understood about a character with what is inside their bags or pockets. My protagonist in my first novel has her piano. My protagonist in my second novel has her rings and a tattoo, but they play into her character through others instead of direct talismans for her.
What does my current protagonist have? You’ve now reminded me of this great question to explore.
Good to hear from you, Janet! Love the imagery of rings and tattoos – one type of thing you can discretely slip off, but the other…indelible, for the most part! Tattoos are a great vehicle for telling stories – in fact, my hero in Louder Than Love uses his as a timeline to illustrate his rise and fall in the music business. It was fun to live vicariously through him and not have to endure the needle myself!
Hi Jess, When the first few lines of this rang into my email I knew I had to read it. For writers who bemoan the fact that readers don’t appreciate backstory dumps in early pages, these “things people carry” are great for raising questions about backstory context right from the beginning. Maybe you don’t tell us all about her boyfriend’s drowning straight away, but while she awaits her pregnancy test results she fingers the shark tooth she wears around her neck. Great post, and a great use of the technique.
My heart just skipped a beat – and then broke – at your example, Kathryn. I could practically see the images as she fingered the tooth! Powerful stuff.
Oh wow, Kathryn!
Completely agree, it’s a great technique to to raise questions, drop hints and hits.
And thank you … you both just gave me a missing piece for one of my secondary characters. 🙂
Cool, Orly! Blog conversation at its best. 😉
I love this post. There are so many things to remember when you’re writing – and it’s always nice to be reminded of one you might have forgotten to utilize enough.
True, Lisa – so many things are drilled into us to remember to do/not do as writers, it’s hard to keep track. But of course the more we do/not do them, the more it becomes second nature. The beauty of this one is it could be a single item, or many. It’s a wild card!
Interesting topic. My current WiP features characters with a lot of alone time, especially in the middle section. Their objects and possessions, limited though they are in the circumstances of the story, are critical to understanding who they are and what motivated them. I hadn’t actually put much thought into why I was writing this way, but this post helps me to solidify that aspect of the story.
Very cool, Eric! The items can be part of their backstory, and can have a history of their own. And I think there is even more fun in the challenge when you DO have those characters going through their alone time – you can use those objects as a window to see the characters, since they are by themselves.
What a wonderful post! And oh, it’s just given me a great idea for my WIP!
Also? I’m totally one-clicking Louder Than Love right now!
Me too, Juli…me too!
Yay for ideas, Juli! And thank you both for checking out the book! Enjoy!
YAY for ideas! I love it when that happens.
Very interesting post. My current WIP is about a young girl entering the child welfare system. Children in the system are systematically stripped of all possessions, family, friends, identity. The first “thing” my heroine loses is a hand made doll, the second is her home made moccasins, then all her clothes, etc. Eventually she hides as a boy and loses her hair and her name. A message from the forgotten doll initiates her journey home. At the end she gains a new name, one she chooses.
I’d written all this without thinking about the importance of what we carry. After reading your blog, I’m going back through my WIP to make certain all of her “stuff” is identified and lost or regained at the appropriate moment in the story.
Carlene, what a riveting yet heartbreaking premise! I do think the writer’s brain is an intriguing tool – we do things that amaze us when we look back. Even without thinking of the importance, you KNEW of the importance. OK, that probably sounds cornier than I meant it to be! But it sounds like you’ve got a good handle on “the stuff!”
Wow! Jessica, I loved your example. Gorgeous writing. I look forward to reading your book.
Thank you, Kathleen! This was a fun topic to write for me – as a former librarian, I am all about the little details! 🙂
Jessica, your words tough the heart, play it like a virtuoso. Thanks so much for this inspirational and beautiful posts. I agree with what has been said and so I must read your book asap 🙂
Thanks for your kind words, Florence!
What a great blog Jessica! I like the way you brought up things we seldom think about like these personal items — it’s a first here at WITS which thrills me because we are always looking for new and better insights into the writing process. Thanks so much!
I think I need to do more of that in my writing. It reminds me that the other day as I was headed into a doctor’s appt. I latched my keys onto my purse handle and noticed a tarnished gold key tag that say’s mom’s keys. My son gave it to me when he was five and I noticed the ring was coming loose. My heart did a flip because we lost him this past year to cancer and I decided I’d just die if I lost that cheap and ugly little key tag. You’ve reminded us all how to use such things to say so much about our characters. Again, thanks. And I agree with Kathleen, your writing is lovely.
Thanks for sharing that story, Sharla Rae. My heart truly goes out to you. I love that you still use such a cherished item from your son on a daily basis, rather than stow it away for safe-keeping. I hope it’s always stays with you, just like your thoughts always will.
PS While all items from our loved ones, here and gone, are valued, sometimes the cheap and ugly things are truly the most endearing!
What a fantastic post. Excellent examples that got me to thinking. Thanks!
Thanks for stopping by, Barbara!
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Thanks, Jessica, for an awesome post. We also have to remember when we lose those tangible items/stuff we must rely on our memories to replace the irreplaceable. I lost my home of 17 years in 2012 to fire, seventeen years lost. We barely got out, so no chance to save anything. While not as tragic as losing someone you love, it is my grief. Now, I concentrate on making new memories for the second part of our “new life”, and, hopefully, I will find new items/stuff to make them with.
I will be checking out Louder Than Love!
Oh Emlee, you are absolutely right. So sorry you had to go through that. I hope you can find comfort in the memories, as well as treasure the new memories you make. Your story put things in perspective, for sure. Thanks for stopping by!
Excellent article. “Mobile sanctuary” in itself illustrates the usefulness in creating depth using things. And such a lovely excerpt. Thank you!
Thanks, Linda! I loved the idea of “mobile sanctuary” as well – I think Orly here on WITS may have coined the term while we were emailing back and forth one day about what I planned to write and the piece I contributed to Writerspace. It stuck with me!
Thanks for reminding me of an exercise of turning out the pockets or purses of characters. That’s how I found out my retired Marine kept his “anchor and globe” in his pocket even though he was now a chorus teacher. The young father who lost his little girl to drugs and alcohols keeps toying with his four-year AA coin. And so on. Good post, Jessica!
I always learn so much when I stop by here to read. It never even occurred to me to give my characters possessions to help define their characters. Thanks again!
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